Being a poet is hard work.
In An Iliad, actor Denis O'Hare and director Lisa Peterson's one-man-show adaptation of Homer's epic poem about the Trojan War, the actor on stage must play both narrator — here called the Poet — and everyone else in the sprawling war story, including Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Helen, Hecuba, Apollo, Hermes, Athena and all the rest.
In the current New York Theatre Workshop production, the Poet is alternately played by O'Hare and Stephen Spinella. It's so taxing an assignment that O'Hare doesn't mind splitting duties. "That was one of the things I fretted about, I must admit," he says. Spinella agrees: "The stamina required to sustain 100 minutes of the ancient warrior world is a challenge."
A busy stage actor for decades, this is O'Hare's first produced work as a playwright. "My initial concept was to do it as a one-off," he says. "I never intended to do it eight times a week." As for Spinella, he found the concept intriguing from the start. "Two years ago I was in L.A. having lunch with Denis," he recalls, "and he mentioned he was working on this piece with Lisa and that they were struggling to figure out how the beginning should work. How does the storyteller arrive to tell the first story of the Western world?"
Spinella decided to try and find out the answer to that question by appearing in a production of An Iliad at Princeton's McCarter Theatre — stepping in when O'Hare suddenly became unavailable — after which, O'Hare says, "We decided it was only fair to let him do it in New York, too."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
The unorthodox casting approach is supported by history. In ancient Greece, epic poetry was performed by professional performers called Rhapsodes. "Different poets would memorize different chapters of Homer and recite them," says O'Hare.
The idea to adapt The Iliad came to Peterson after she caught a solo performance of the famous poem in Oslo, Norway. In 2005 she asked if O'Hare would like to find a way to adapt Homer's classic work. "I'm more of a Roman guy," remembers O'Hare. "I'm obsessed with Rome." But, having dabbled in writing since his college days, the actor decided to take the job. The timing seemed right. "When Bush declared 'mission accomplished' and we were still in the midst of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it felt like a war poem was what this country needed. I still think it's needed."
The structure and text of the play were worked out through many meetings with Peterson, theatrical workshops and improv sessions. "Lisa would ask me to improv, and turn on the video camera," says O'Hare. "From these tapes we came up with parts of the script."
The show had its premiere at Seattle Rep in the spring of 2010. Since then it's been performed in Chicago and Portland, OR.
An Iliad is an aptly unspecific title for the New York staging, since the Spinella and O'Hare versions are actually a bit different from each other, with slightly varying stage cues and lighting. "It runs about 100 minutes," says O'Hare. "Since I'm more of a hothead, mine might be 95 minutes."